whispered love
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September 15th 2006: Great Sporting Heroes

At any school, there are children who - for all their enthusiasm - are never going to make the sports teams, appear to have zero spatial awareness, and have the ability to miss any ball, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

At our school, it falls to me to be their coach. Year in, year out, they get overlooked for all the teams... and yet, in that dauntless optimism that is the human spirit, they dream of olympic glory, cup final glory, their day of vindication.

Clarky has been in my squad for four years now. He has never made the big time and yet he loves his football. Ungainly, disorientated most of the time, yet beaming benignly through his glasses, he is one of those children who has no malice anywhere inside him. And finally this week his moment came. I made him captain of our one fixture, leader of five other players of similar ability, to face a friendly school who offered to field their worst possible team.

Alas, their worst possible team was not bad enough. Clarky took to the field with his band of brothers - they were an organised unit... everyone knew his position, at least until the match began and they actually had to move. Clarky's masterplan involved playing J in goal - something of a surprise decision given J's previous performances but, then again, who else was there? And so... the whistle blew.

Within 2 minutes we were 3-0 down and being completely overrun by their worst players. The other school had provided the referee, a kind but delicate man who recognised the way the game was going, and started to referee with increasing creativity and discretion. Now the goal glut ended, with incomprehensible decisions going in our favour (to which our players were oblivious). And then... the drama. The referee - clearly selected for our match because all the real ones were taking the 'big' games - suddenly noticed that all this time their side had seven players on the pitch against our six (not that it would have made any difference).

With a flamboyant gesture he blew his whistle, sent off one of their players, and announced that a penalty would be awarded to us. As all our other players appeared to shrink visibly away at this moment of high drama, Clarky stepped forward and tentatively placed the ball on the spot. I waited with resignation for the inevitable miss.

Next moment, with the ball looping into the top right-hand corner of the net, Clarky was charging back down the pitch with his hands raised aloft and the sun glinting in his thick-lensed glasses, as if he'd just won the world cup. It was one of my great sporting moments. I don't know how he did it, but it didn't matter.

That was the final score: 3-1. All their other goals (about six) were adjudged to be offside and disallowed. But these kids have none of the predator about them. They aimiably shook hands at the end, then tramped off to have tea, talking about their goal. They have little competitive instinct in them. To them, the fact that they had a match at all was enough. To have scored a goal was a crowning glory.

Clarky is undoubtedly one of my great sporting heroes. Not since the days of Johnny D - a huge overweight lout of a boy with a gentle inner spirit - have I felt so elated. Johnny D, who for 3 long years stood stock still in the middle of the pitch as the game ebbed and flowed all around him - "because they don't pass to me" - and who, finally goaded too often, and finding a ball trickling to his feet, let fly the most amazing cannonball shot I've ever seen in my life... the pent up frustration of 3 years' waiting... right in the back of the net.

He was a great overweight misunderstood hulk of a boy, chronically dyslexic, and always adrift in class. And yet he had such a lovable heart. And, like Clarky, he had his day of sporting glory.

It's not the overpaid professionals on TV who are my greatest heroes. These children - champions of obscurity - who linger so fondly in my memories: they are my greatest sporting heroes.

*names adjusted to hide identities


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